There's a fridge magnet I ran into once — at the Strand, maybe? — that said something like, "Life's too short to read bad books." Meaning, if you find yourself 15% or 20% into a story that's you're just not feeling in any measure, put it down and move on.
It's good advice, and I've used it many times myself. But it also seems like a potential trap, a way to reinforce one's own bubble.
I actually had a conversation about this subject that began from a different angle: walking out of movies. Specifically, laying down upwards of $10 to go into a theater, or even the $1.50 for a Redbox rental, and then bailing when you realize you've picked a dud. I've bailed on many more movies I've rented on disc or fired up on streaming than I have movies I've watched in a theater, in big part because there seems to be far more of a sunk-cost fallacy associated with the ritual of out-of-the-house moviegoing. We spent all this money and we went this far out of our way, we might as well get what money's worth there can be had.
But streaming, or discs, or books — different rules, for sure. It takes no effort at all, and there's far less of a sense of a sunk cost, when you ditch out on any of those things. That said, I'm betting most of us would find a library book far easier to abandon than one we spent $15 on.
My point, though, isn't about sunk costs in financial terms. The other week I started reading D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love for the first time, and I found it immensely difficult to stick with. Lawrence is a terribly uneven writer, and much of his work has not aged well, but there are flashes of brilliance in it, and I wanted to stick around for as many of those flashes as I could harvest from the work. Once upon a time, I'd've bailed around page 50, but my whole sense of What am I trying to get out of this experience? is not like it used to be when it comes to reading.
Most of us read for entertainment or some specific project of personal enrichment. We have a fairly well-developed sense of what we want to get out of a particular book — we want a cracking good yarn, or we want an education into a particular subject. What's hardest is to open a book and read it with as little as possible of that sort of deliberate mission-finding — to just let the experience of reading the book be the experience of reading the book, to give yourself permission to be bored if need be.
I guess what I'm advocating for here is not that we should force ourselves to finish every book that falls into our laps, like kids sullenly putting forks into the veggies staring back at us on our plates. More like, the higher a standard you can come up with for bailing on a book, the more you may find yourself deriving from the experience. It's easy to bail on a book because it's boring, because then it becomes all the easier to narrow what interest you, and create this feedback loop where the threshold for what's "boring" gets easier and easier to trip over.
These rules don't need to apply to everyone. Obviously I'm not insisting that everyone who ever picks up a book try to push themselves this way (I mean, it would be nice...). Rather, I'm aiming all this at people who want to create with words. The fewer excuses you have to read less widely, the better. By all means, bail when you're bored. But at least try to find out where your boredom really comes from, and experiment with hearing it out. Don't just stuff another book in its mouth and tell it to shut up.
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